July 25, 2012

Fun and Games at OSCON

Once again I spent a week in Portland with over 3,000 Open source enthusiasts, developers, business people and community managers at the largest US open source convention. Once again the hallway track was supremely interesting, and there was much of interest in the sessions.

For me there was a little more business than usual, as a new client of The Open Bastion was present and this was an opportunity to learn more about their team, meet people, form impressions, find out how they work and so on. Also the Python language had a stand in the Open Source Pavilion (alongside many other famous open source names), and I took my Raspberry Pi along. It was amazing how many people had heard of the Pi, and very few actually had one. The commonest comment was “I’m still waiting for mine.”

Alas I again didn't have very much time for the excellent Community Leadership Summit which now traditionally precedes OSCON, though I did manage to take part in one session about conflict resolution, and heard much useful stuff in plenary talks. If you are the leader of any open source community group I would definitely recommend going to this (free) event. It's well worth the cost of an extra couple of night's accommodation. Monday was taken up with clerical work, but on Tuesday I did make it to several sessions of the Business Leadership Day tutorial, and found them sound to excellent.

Tuesday evening Camp OSCON was held—indoors, due to threatened thunder storms which in the end never transpired. This was a traditional O'Reilly party, open bars, many different types of food in all-you-can-eat quantities, airbrushed fake tattoos, the whole bit. I managed to score four party tickets for a friend who came with his wife and two children. They were excited beyond belief, and it was delightful to see how much pleasure a two-minute stop at the registration desk had created.

Among the many activities was a dunking stool, allowing three pitches in return for a $10 donation. My major part in the evening's activities was to be (as I thought) the final target of the event. I took my place, and was duly dunked several times. At one point a guy who looked a lot like Tim O'Reilly took a shot. Good heavens, it was Tim O'Reilly. After failing to unseat me with any of his three pitches he moved closer to the target. Saying “How does this work?” (something I suspect he was not in need of information about) he pressed the target and promptly subjected me to my fifteenth ducking of the evening.

Tim O'Reilly in the dunking tank
Photo from Flickr by aaronparecki
When I emerged from the tank I thought it was all over, but then I saw Tim getting into it. Even though I was still wet I couldn't resist, and promptly made the necessary donation to put me at the front of the line. I am happy to say by the flukiest luck I managed to turn him from dry to wet with my first pitch. Success! My two remaining pitches failed to hit the target, so I went off to the men's room to dry and change. When I emerged I couldn't resist going up to the target, saying “How does this work?” and subjecting him to a second dunking.

I went around back to pack my wet clothes and he insisted on reaching over to shake my hand with a big smile, which reassured me that there were no hard feelings and that the cancellation of my O'Reilly School of Technology classes was not imminent. Tim O'Reilly is a good sport.

Wednesday's keynotes were thought-provoking. I particularly like the fact that the open source world appears to be becoming less shy about the value that it creates in the economy. Tim O'Reilly suggested that successful organizations create more value than they capture, and was very scathing about the short-term thinking and transparent absence of business ethics on Wall Street.

He did some very interesting sums suggesting that open source is a huge net plus to the economy. He likened the situation to that in energy: if we use a clothes dryer to dry our clothes that energy is metered and measured and accounted for. If we dry our clothes on the line using solar power nothing ever gets recorded. Similarly the benefits of open source software have not been sufficiently trumpeted to the world, and so are taken for granted by the commercial enterprises that profit from them because they do not perceive any significant costs. He ended by thanking those of us who have been working in open source for a long time for our forward thinking and our contributions.

Much of the rest of the day I spent talking to people either on the Python stand or in the hallway track. It is always impressive to learn about the range of applications to which open source is being put. The medical faction are much in evidence. The most surprising discovery I made is that at the core of the award-winning open source VistA system is a MUMPS database, technology whose roots must go back over forty years. I sure hope there's a Python API.

Thursday morning's keynotes were more practical in nature, my favorite being the talk from Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth. I'm a sucker for technology, and his explanation of how the juju system lets you build and model complex, scalable systems on the desktop and then easily migrate them to the cloud for testing or production was quite something. The practical demonstration of migrating a service from Amazon to the H-P Cloud service was impressive* (though I was amused to see he did at one point get bitten by a minor gremlin).

There was a frankly disappointing interview with Microsoft's Senior Director for Open Source Communities, Gianugo Rabellino. Not only did it sound as though it might have been scripted by Microsoft's public relations department, it seemed to be mostly "sound and fury, signifying nothing." I am aware that Microsoft** are now a significant contributor to (for example) the Linux kernel and other open source projects, but it's difficult to have a company's representatives talking about open source in "snake oil" terms one year and then see them hold out the olive branch the next.

There is still a substantial mistrust of Microsoft's motivations and purposes among a part of the open source community, as evidenced by a subtle change in the audience's mood. They will have to work hard to prove that they deserve a place in the open source community. This is a pity, because Microsoft employ many smart technical people who fully "get" open source, but it is taking the corporate side a long time to come to terms with it.

The Python stand was very busy again, as were those of the other open source projects. The day went quickly, and I got to listen to a couple of track talks, but again a lot of my time was spent in the hallways. I also spent some time observing the O'Reilly and Convention Center staff, who appeared for the most part to be a model of curtesy and efficiency. In the evening I was invited to the chairmens' party thrown by co-chairs Edd Dumbill and Sarah Novotny. This was, as is often the case, a fairly low-key affair attended by many likable people, and I was surprised to see that it was after midnight when we left. Time does indeed fly in good company.

This meant I had to hustle and get my beauty sleep as I was a small part of Friday's keynotes, announcing a well-deserved Frank Willison Memorial Award for Jesse Noller. Jesse is the classic busy person you should ask to get things done. His work rate is phenomenal, and he held down a full-time job while putting together the most amazing PyCon ever and going through a good deal of personal disturbance. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more, and the PSF Board was in full agreement that Jesse should be the recipient.

It was fascinating to spend a little time backstage and see the technology and the production values that now support OSCON. The show is professional from its head to the tip of its toes. The keynote session was followed by more hallway track and meetings while the sessions continued, then back for the closing plenary session at which Open Source Awards were handed out and the final entertainment was provided by Paul Fenwick, always worth listening to even when his topic is light.

After the formal end of the conference I had a couple of business meetings and went home (using public transport, because I live in Portland, hooray!) for a well-earned nap. Feeling much better-rested the next day I was happy to host the inaugural OSCON Survivors' Brunch at the Tabor Hill Cafe, a local place I make sure to patronize while I am at home. This was kind of an ad hoc event, attended by about a dozen of my favorite open source people, and I will repeat it in a more organized way next year.

OSCON always leaves you with plenty of food for thought, and this year I was much more encouraged about the prospects of open source entering (or even, dare I suggest, becoming) the mainstream. Mark Shuttleworth revealed OEM connections this year and claimed that next year 5% of all computers will ship with Ubuntu pre-loaded. I'd recommend buying your ticket for next year's OSCON as soon as they come on sale.

* H-P were a major OSCON sponsor this year; this was a shrewd move
** Microsoft also sponsored OSCON

[Disclosure: Steve Holden's business runs technical events and conferences,
and Steve profits from the sale of O'Reilly School Python classes]

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